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History of Nootka Sound

About 15,000 years ago, most of British Columbia was covered by glaciers. Some land areas remained ice- free, and technically could have been occupied by humans. Once the glaciers retreated 11,000 years ago, the West Coast was definitely open to human occupation. The earliest and longest continuous occupation known so far for the outer coast, was revealed by Parks Canada excavations at Yuquot, Nootka Sound. This site had been used for at least 4200 years or longer..

First Nations

These humans were sometimes referred to as Nootkans, but are more commonly known as the Mowachaht people (People of the Deer). They developed a two part system of subsistence. In the fall they left their outside ("kla'a") villages such as Yuquot (Friendly Cove) and moved to the inside ("hilstis") stream mouths to catch salmon for the winter months ahead. They lived their lives according to their own histories passed down as oral tradition from generation to generation, occasionally warring with other tribes for territorial purposes. For the most part they lived a peaceful life uninterupted until one day a great "machine" appeared on the horizon. This of course was the Santiago, captained by Juan Perez. The sight of this ship filled the Mowachahts with terror , they believed that Qua-utz (the creator) was coming to punish the misdeeds of the people. Some hid in the mountains, some hid in their lodges and the brave took their canoes out to meet the huge mass that had come out of the ocean. Some of the more courageous boarded the ship and took part in a friendly exchange of gifts. Some even stole some silver spoons which were found four years later by Captain Cook.

The Sea Otter Fur Trade

In 1778 while looking for fresh water, Captain James Cook anchored in Resolution Cove on Bligh Island, in Nootka Sound and thus began an exciting and sometimes controversial chapter in the history of Nootka Sound. While he was anchored in the cove a few canoes supporting the local aboriginal people (Mowachaht) approached his vessels the H.M.S. Resolution and H.M.S. Discovery. It was here that they cried out "itchme nutka, itchme nutka" ( "go around"). What they wanted was for Cook to go around Bligh Island to the port of Yuquot (Friendly Cove). Although, Cook misunderstood their meaning and surmised that they were telling him the name of the area. Hence the name Nootka Sound was born.

Cook traded for some sea otter pelts and recorded the trades into his journals. Once Cook published his journals in 1784, the fur trade took off. Soon sea otter pelts were fetching as much as $4000 for a prime pelt. It didn't take long for word to get out that a fortune could be made in the fur trade. Thus began the slaughter of thousands of sea otters which would take many years before they would re-establish themselves with the help of modern day conservationalists.

The Controversy

Captain John Meares and Captain William Douglas arrived at Yuquot in May, 1788. Meares put some Chinese artisans ashore with building materials and ordered them to build a hut and the sloop North West America, the first of it's kind built on the coast. He then left on a trading cruise leaving Douglas behind to supervise.

The Spanish, who claimed the entire Pacific Northwest Coast as part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, caught wind of the goings on at Yuquot. They decided to send an expedition under the command of Don Esteban Jose Martinez in 1789. Martinez took possession of the port in June and subsequently arrested Captain Douglas. He was released with little difficulty, but Martinez seized the North West America as security for money owed him by Meares's company.

The arrival of Captain James Colnett aboard the Argonaut, with instructions from Meares to build a factory at Yuquot, created a serious crisis. Colnett informed Martinez that he intended to settle on land that Meares claimed to purchase from the Mowachaht chief Maquinna. Martinez had Colnett arrested and seized the Argonaut and it's crew, then sent the ship along with the Englishmen as prisoners, to San Blas, Mexico.

Colnett was released, but these events created a controversy that would take the courts of Spain and England five years to settle. This controversy almost brought the two countries to war. In the end the power of Britain prevailed and an agreement was signed at Madrid on January 11, 1794, by the Baron of St. Helens for Great Britain and the Duke of Alcudia for Spain. Free access to Nootka was given to both nations, and the Spanish evacuated the port on April 2, 1795.

To this day there are historical sites through out the sound with the most popular being Friendly Cove itself. There are caves with Mowachaht burial sites and Spanish burial sites in them. There are also hieroglyphics on some rock faces in the sound.

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